The Comfort Food Diaries: Not My Mother's Taco Salad

Zac Overman

Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.

For the second half of our twenties, while my husband, Matt, made his way through graduate school and a postdoc and I worked in the design department of a publishing house, we shared a 450-square-foot apartment in the East Village. It was advertised as a one-bedroom, but it was actually a studio, with a sliding door that cut diagonally through the center (our bed was wedged into the back corner). There was an office/kitchen nook, with a rickety table that was mostly a repository for junk mail, and a TV nook, where we placed the cheapest IKEA couch money could buy. The lack of space barely bothered us. We invited crowds of friends over for delivery pizza, Indian, or Chinese, and when there were too many people for the couch and desk chairs to accommodate, we sat on the floor to eat. It was always a party at 79 St. Mark's Place.

On nights when it was just the two of us, Matt and I would nestle into our stiff sofa and tune in to whichever TV series we were watching at the time—Flight of the Conchords, the early years of Game of Thrones—and tuck into a dish I riffed on a lot back then: a big bowl of taco salad. Well, let's be honest: It was more like a nacho casserole than any sort of salad. We'd hit pause mid-episode to catch up on the day's events—a funny thing he overheard on the train, a challenge I was having at the office. By the time we were through watching, it was too late to do the dishes, but it didn't really matter. I remember looking at him and thinking, "This might be it. Our life will never be this good and this easy again."

That taco salad was many things—and many ingredients—but it most certainly was not my mother's taco salad. The one she made in our suburban home outside of Portland, Oregon, when I was growing up was so neatly organized that it could be served in a straight-sided glass trifle bowl, so you could see the layers of evenly sliced tomatillo half-moons, halved cherry tomatoes, shiny black beans, and defrosted frozen corn. She'd read about it in Ray Overton's Main-Course Salads, a cookbook that inspired most of her healthy weeknight standards in my later high school years. The book was published in 1999, when Overton still felt the need to refer to queso as "queso cheese." Mom followed the recipe carefully—though she cut down on the onions that she and Dad deemed "too strong," and quickly phased out the tortilla chips that Overton said to crush on top in favor of toasted pepitas from Trader Joe's. But in those low-fat years, Mom's meatless taco salads always turned out delicious and crisp.

My parents were sticklers for formal family dinners. They set the table each night, with everything in its proper place: spoons, forks, knives, napkins—even if we were eating something like soup that required just one utensil. Together, we shared stories about our day and helped each other solve our respective school and work conundrums. I can recall only two times in my childhood that my parents left the TV on during dinner. Both were University of Oregon football games—"essential viewing," according to my father. But, since our television was in an adjoining room, we had to squint at it from the kitchen table 15 feet away. Other than that, our dinners were all about proper family time. As kids, my brother and I were taught to fold our napkins in our laps and ask, "May I please be excused?" if we wanted to leave the table. But as we got older, there was seldom reason to ask. We wanted to linger around the table, laughing with our parents, and often sticking around for another serving, especially if my mother had made one of her specialties—grilled salmon drizzled with soy and ginger, or cioppino with Dungeness crab.

My love of more informal meals eaten on the sofa didn't start when I moved in with Matt—it happened earlier, during a particularly tough stretch of college. A friend and I got hooked on The O.C. and ordered weekly takeout—giant Papa John's pizzas, or nachos from a 24-hour convenience store on the edge of campus—to watch the show in the basement lounge of my dorm. An hour watching The O.C. and eating greasy, cheesy food was exactly what I needed to hit the pause button on the pressures of my life back then: the pressure to say smart things in class; the pressure to impress guys who were surrounded by girls who actually said smart things in class. O.C. night became a tradition. It was a time to blow off deadlines, put our feet up on the table, and unapologetically dig in. It was everything my childhood dinners were not.

Like those dorm-basement dinners, my taco salad is best eaten directly from the serving bowl (often while wearing sweatpants). Whereas my mother's version was perfectly assembled, mine is gloriously messy. It starts with A LOT of chorizo, the Mexican kind that's raw and spicy. I sometimes use ground beef or lamb, but chorizo is always best, since no extra seasoning is needed. Once the meat is sizzling, I usually add some beans and keep it all warm on the stovetop while I chop the vegetables.

Taco salad isn't really the place for lettuce: With all the gooey cheese and steaming-hot meat and beans, greens just end up wilting. A good taco salad requires the crunchy stuff: red peppers, yellow peppers, onions, radishes, jicama, as well as accoutrements like pickled jalapeños or sweet cherry peppers, sliced pimento-stuffed olives, ripe avocado, fresh cilantro, and a few handfuls of tortilla chips. I throw everything into a giant bowl and make the dressing haphazardly: a dollop of sour cream, a big squeeze of lime juice, a shake of cumin and a little salsa. Of course, the star of my taco salad is the cheese. I grate a mountain of cheddar or pepper jack into it (more than I'd ever admit to eating in one sitting) before tossing it all together with the dressing and a garnish of salsa, more sour cream, and hot sauce.

Over the last six months, ever since our daughter was born, we've taken a break from taco salad night, and from turning on the TV. Instead, Matt and I spend our evenings tiptoeing around the house after getting our baby to sleep, dutifully carrying the infant monitor around the way emergency room doctors do their beepers. We speak in hushed voices and crawl into bed the moment we finish eating a reheated bowl of soup from the freezer, often before 8 p.m. Our new overstuffed couch—the most comfortable piece of furniture I've ever owned—sits unused.

But it's only a matter of time before taco salad will reenter our lives.

Our daughter is starting to eat real food, even if it's just a tablespoon of mashed avocado, most of which ends up in her neck folds, shirt sleeves, and bib. But I'm eagerly looking forward to the day when she can sit at the table with Matt and me, eating the dishes I grew up with—spaghetti with red sauce, soy-glazed grilled salmon. I can't wait until she can tell us about her day as she twirls some pasta on her fork.

But sometimes, when we're all a little too tired for a proper sit-down dinner, the three of us will gather on the couch and eat taco salad. I will pile it high with chorizo, sour cream, and ridiculous amounts of cheese. And we will eat it straight from the bowl as we watch whatever Netflix show is popular by then. It won't matter if we eat in a formal dining room or on the sofa. Either way, it will be family dinner.